The year is 1851. A terrifying, supernatural force has been unleashed, and hearts and families have been divided. In the darkest, most depraved corners of early San Francisco, a growing evil takes root, and threatens to consume all hope. Justin and Ling Fu must unite one last time, across barriers of doubt and reality, to finally face their greatest fears, and destroy the ancient curse forever.
We strolled onto the main thoroughfare. The road was damp, though thankfully not too muddy. We passed a horse and buggy, waiting patiently outside an herbalist shop for its driver to return. Folk music, played on a slightly out-of-tune lute, came through a dim, open door. The sweet, pungent scents of tobacco and opium smoke drifted from it, signifying a saloon and gambling house. A fruit seller peddled his wares out of two enormous baskets, slung across his shoulders on a thick bamboo pole. Children ducked and played, a puppy yapping at their heels, as their mother toiled over her laundry, hanging it in crisp, fluttering rows across the alley.
All around were the scents, sights, and sounds familiar to us. This was our home, now, our little corner of China. At least, for those who weren’t afraid of the ancestral dilemma of not being buried in the homeland after death.
We were re-creating our world here, in the ways that brought us comfort, and a sense of family. It was doubly enhanced by what Chen had just said, about caring for me as a sister and a friend.
“It’s good to see you feeling yourself again,” he said. “You’ve always been strong. I admire you for this.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as strong. Bold, yes. But I’m far too distracted by things like beauty, and pleasure, to be truly strong.”
Chen stopped me a moment. “I wish you could see yourself as the rest of us have. I, for one, count you among the finest people I’ve known. Those who have inspired me the most.”
I had no words to answer, and looked at the ground as we continued walking.
“Unfortunately, you and he both seem to have lost the ability to see it in yourselves,” Chen continued. “And that’s why I’m walking you to the restaurant now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that I’ve watched you both, two of the dearest people in the world to me, how you’ve only had eyes for each other, for so long. And yet you still insist on staring at the lonely walls you’ve surrounded yourselves with.”
I was about to respond, but we arrived at the restaurant.
The sound of children’s laughter and several happy voices carried forth to welcome us.
We met Yip Kwan, as he was leaving with his wife and two young sons. He’d managed to save enough money from his restaurant wages to bring them over from Canton.
We greeted each other warmly, and the little boys gave Chen and I the sweetest hugs.
“Is Fai Peng still working?” Chen asked.
“Sure is,” Yip Kwan said. “Been at it since sunrise. We’re closing up now. But I know he’ll make an exception for the two of you.”
Yip Kwan and his family left for home, a tenant building, just across the street, where they had a comfortable room all to themselves.
Fai Peng slept in a small loft above the restaurant, from what I recalled.
Chen stopped at the door and grinned.
“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I only said I’d walk you here. The rest is up to you.”
My initial resolve welled in me, and made my heart pound with anticipation.
I felt undeniable gratitude toward Chen.
“Thank you,” I told him, gave him the kindest smile I could manage.
He looked away, eyes a little damp.
“No need,” he said. “Go on, hurry. Don’t let him get away this time. I’ll wait here a while. But I doubt you’ll need me to walk you home.”
I entered the restaurant. The dining room was empty. The sawdust floor had been raked over well by Yip Kwan, all of the well-worn wooden tables and benches arranged in neat, tidy rows.
The kitchen was separated by a short plank service counter, upon which several pots and pans lay, in various states of disarray.
I heard him before I saw him, singing loudly in English, an American song that I knew he’d always found amusing.
“So, what was your name in the States? Was it Johnson, or Butler, or Bates? Did you murder your wife, and flee for your life…”
My heart beat faster.
I sat on one of the stools at the counter, and watched him through the narrow window into the kitchen.
I saw only the solid angles of his back, wearing his usual dark cotton shirt, and a white apron over it. His queue was knotted around his head. He continued to sing, as he scrubbed and put things away, the cheerful clang of his pots and utensils gladdening my spirits.
Unable to remain silent any longer, I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, sir. What’s it take to get some service around here?”
He nearly bolted to the window. And when he saw me, his jaw dropped.
“Good evening, Ling Fu,” he said, once he’d regained his composure. “How long have you been sitting there?”
I gave him a flirtatious glance, one I’d been taught to use during my days as a courtesan. “Long enough to admire the view.”
He stared for a few seconds longer. And then he hurried out to meet me, picked up a pan from the counter, and pretended to be busy polishing it.
“I’m glad to see you out and about,” he said, seeming distracted. “I’ve got some great dishes to choose from. I can make you anything you like. Got this new supplier of fresh oysters. They’re fantastic. Are you hungry?”
“I suppose I am, a little.” I looked him up and down, rested a little closer over the counter, and laid my chin gently against my palm. “Though, I’ve heard there are other things here, not on the menu, which are far more enticing than oysters.”
He seemed as if he could scarcely believe that I was here, as if he were beholding something that wasn’t quite real.
“That’s a pretty high compliment, to pay to a humble establishment like mine. Are you sure you’ve got the right place?”
“I’m certain of it.”
He leaned toward me, and studied my face intently, his bright, hopeful eyes a short distance from mine.
“It’s really good to see you,” he said.
“It’s good to see you, too. You stopped coming to visit me,” I pouted expertly, just long enough to be appealing, not annoying. “I’ve missed you.”
He looked away. “I’m sorry.” Shoulders slumped a bit. “I just…didn’t want to be in your way.”
“What? Never. What made you think you were?”
He came around the counter then, set his pan down, wiped his hands on a towel and tossed it aside. “You’re an exceptional and talented young woman. You’ve got better things to do than have someone like me around.”
“You’re mistaken,” I told him, shifting in my seat, to move closer. “That’s not at all how I feel.”
He laughed nervously. “I can’t believe you’re here, telling me this right now. You’re the most fascinating, spirited, beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he said. “But, you’re of noble status. I’m your servant. It just isn’t right.”
I shook my head, gave him a playful smile.“No one cares, least of all me. This is America. Those sorts of things don’t matter anymore.”
“I’m too old for you,” he said, continuing his excuses. “You deserve someone younger. More handsome.”
“You aren’t that much older than me. And I’ll have you know, I’ve always preferred older men, anyway.”
“I’m not even a man. Just a scarred, pathetic…” He grew sullen. “And I have far too many burdens. Trust me. I’d just bring you down in the end. I can’t offer you anything that a real man should. It’d be best if you just come to see it the way that I have.”
He stood, walked over to the wall, flung an arm against it, and bowed his head.
I followed, placed my hands softly against his back, and rested my cheek against him.
He shuddered at my touch.
“I’ll tell you what you are to me,” I said. “A strong warrior, who protects those he loves.”
He still kept his back to me. He was stiff and uncomfortable. If I moved too much, it might shatter the moment.
‘You’re a man, unlike any I’ve ever met. Fun to be with. And, I feel like I can just tell you anything. It’s always been like this between us. At least, I think so.”
His voice was strained. “Yes…”
“But what you’ve been most to me, is a friend. You were there. Those cold, cold nights. When I thought I’d die, and I was so alone. It was you who came to me. And just held me. All my life, I never thought I could feel this for someone. But I do. I love you.”
He turned to me then, and placed a hand to my face. His eyes glistened, but he was too tough to cry, and tried to fight them.
“Just like a little bird,” he said. “All those times I watched you, sending them to fly away over the rooftops of the estate, out into the world. Seeing the joy on your face, as you set them free. You’ve always seemed like the most fragile thing. But within you beats a heart fiercer than any I’ve ever known. I’ve loved you, for a long time. And I still do.”
I settled into his embrace. His sturdy arms and chest surrounded me in a haven of content.
“Stay with me,” I told him. “I want to be with you. Please.”
I felt his tear splash against my arm, and it just made me hug him tighter.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked.
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”